Keeping ourselves honest in strategic change

There’s no autumnal chill yet where I live, but it’s true: summer is over.

With the back-to-business energy of September in North America, it strikes me as a good time to get realistic. If we are making strategic changes, we may embark on a lot of plans and ideas, but we aren’t always clear-eyed about what’s actually happening.

This isn’t unusual. Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist, points out all the ways we’re dishonest with ourselves – we can rationalize a lot of behaviour that isn’t our best self, and paint an inaccurate (and more-flattering) picture of our situation. But it is a problem, especially when we don’t have a lot of reserves or strategic manoeuvrability to cushion us from the consequences of our magical thinking or self-deception.

We need to be honest and clear about our progress, so what can we do to counter this tendency? Some of it is management, some design, and some straight-up trickery.

Regularly affirm our commitment to our vision.

And do this in a way that’s visible and tangible, and proactive. People from Google tell stories about how their slogan “Don’t be evil” can be used to articulate a gut reaction to a proposed course of action.

How to do this? One of my clients has their vision on the wall of their boardroom. Another prints out their vision, mission, and strategies on the side of the tent card that faces their board members at every meeting. I like to start strategy discussions around the board table with a reminder that strategy is a crucial role of the board – to keep our aspirations high and our purpose clear.

What could you do to bring your aspirations closer to your day-to-day operations?

Design yourself some fortitude

Ariely notes that the path of least resistance looks a lot more attractive when we’re stressed and tired.

I’ve certainly noticed with boards that there is a clear tradeoff in the length of a given discussion – we need some time to get going, but after a certain point, I’m pretty sure some of them would have handed me their firstborn just to get out of that meeting with a decision.

The path of least resistance in strategic change is to assume everything is fine… which may be true, until it’s not.

How to deal with this? Ariely, talking about resisting temptations to be dishonest, jokes you should “Do your taxes first thing in the morning.” Others talk about “swallowing the frog” – the idea of tackling unpleasant and unrewarding tasks early in the day, so nothing worse will happen all day.

More broadly, look at how you spend your time. Are you spending your most productive hours on low-impact issues? This will make it harder to face down strategic questions – and you’ll be doing it when you’re tired, and maybe would rather be home already.

I’d also extend it to your agenda-setting. Don’t clutter up board or staff meetings with administrivia. Spend the bulk of your time on the important stuff, even if it will be hard to discuss, and get on with that conversation.

Think things through to their long-term consequences.

This means looking to the bottom of the slippery slope. Does what we’re doing right now lead us towards anything that makes us uncomfortable, when it’s all played out to its likely conclusion? Ariely points out that dishonest people often start out with small dishonesties – taking a little money, intending to put it back, for instance.

How to do this? Use your strategic plan to select and evaluate your current activities helps you play out the implications of what you’re doing, and understand whether it may back you into a corner later. The strategy should be the template for your planning as well as reporting, so it can guide you. And set metrics so you can be clear on whether you’re going in the right direction – or not.

Set deadlines and measure

Did you  set some goals or objectives for your strategy? Did you attach a timeframe to those? Did you estimate the work effort in terms of making the strategy real? Are you measuring your % completed?

Without measurement, it’s easy to be vague and hand-wavey about progress.

How to deal with this? Break out the Gantt chart. A good old project plan, with clear milestones and metrics will help here.

Also, it turns out that breaking things into smaller chunks of time seems to help with making even far-off deadlines seem real – what happens when you set up a countdown clock measured in days or hours?

If you’d like to discuss how we can help you face your strategic progress – whatever it might be – squarely, please get in touch.

Photograph by Unsplash, used with permission.

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


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